What is complexity? And is it a desirable thing?

Eric Gerber’s thread about the most complex wines people had tasted got me thinking:

When is complexity a good thing? And what is it anyway?

Reading the list of the wines in the other thread, I thought, “These all sound like great wines. But is it complexity that made them great?”

I certainly use the term, and I see it as a positive when contrasted with monolithic wines that are, say, all oak or all ripe, primary fruit, or underripe and shrill. When older wines develop tertiary elements that seems to be a complexity and a plus. Botrytised wines can have layers of different elements, both fruity and rot-related, that make them intriguing.

But, on the other hand, some of the most gawdawful wines (e.g., Sierre Carche) are certainly complex. Start with some overripe, perhaps slightly raisined fruit, put it through a hot fermentation, and perhaps some unsanitary wine-making and you’ll get complexity – VA, some caramelization/oxidation and goodness knows what else.

Oaky chardonnays may well have more complexity than a simpler, unoaked one. But is the former necessarily better? Depends.

Conversely, a good riesling Kabinett can be enormously charming and delicious, yet I’m not sure it’s more complex than a pungent sauvignon blanc – just more appealing.

As I’ve thought about, I find myself feeling that complexity isn’t necessarily a virtue in its own right, though its absence might, other things being equal, be a negative.

In my own case, I think I use the term when I find a wine challenges me a bit – when I have to sip it over and over to elicit different aromas, and each time another facet shows itself. But, honestly, that might just reduce to saying that it was tannic or acidic or backward. In other cases, I might just mean that I’m getting interesting layers of fruit that seem very pure, but the wine might actually be simpler than if had been put in barriques.

So what are we talking about when we say complex? Does it mean anything more than, “I really liked this a lot?”

Complexity is one of those things that makes me invoke the old “necessary but not sufficient” phrase. That is, it’s a necessary component of a great wine for me, but it’s not, alone, sufficient to make a wine great. Other criteria that need to be there are balance and quality. Quality feels vague, but what I mean is the avoidance of things like your description of Sierra Carche. Add in a measure of transparency and I’m more or less there.

Note that I’ve nothing against straightforward wines… but I don’t count them as great and they’d better be priced like quaffers. A tasty Riesling, CdR, Pinot, etc that just goes down easy can rock, but those wines don’t make my cut for being considered great.

This whole “complexity” thing has been a pet peeve of mine for awhile. Seems like I find myself trying to come up with a new way to say the same thing every time so I’ll just beg everyone’s indulgence and copy-paste a bit on the issue I posted a few years ago.

Cacophony and its Discontents

A comment by Japanese chef Hiromitsu Nozaki in a Wine Spectator review of the Tokyo restaurant scene recently jumped out at me. Nozaki said, “My role is to remove—not add—to the ingredients, so that we can see the purity, the simplicity, and the essence of each dish. It is much harder to remove than to add.” It’s an unusual perspective to read in a wine magazine, since the prevailing standard of quality for wine is often assumed to be the opposite of simplicity—complexity. In wine jargon, “simple” is always a pejorative, never associated with purity or other virtues. Complex is better than simple the same way that big is better than small. Since so many people accept this so unquestioningly, it is worth considering what they mean when they call a wine complex, and what they might be undervaluing when deriding the simple.

In his new book Desert Island Wine, Miles Lambert-Gócz traces the origin of complexity’s use in winespeak to H. Warner Allen’s 1932 book The Romance of Wine. “Allen,” writes Lambert-Gócz, “made reference to complexity by name several times while discussing how grapes ought to be processed so as to maximize the multiplicity of ‘nuances.’” People use the term in a similar manner today. A wine with a “multiplicity of nuances” is presumed to be complex, even though this kind of multiplicity often results in a cacophony or disjointedness. A wine with its elements in perfect harmony is often mistaken for simple, since it is not possible to isolate every nuance and reduce it to a “descriptor” in a “tasting note.”

The “tasting note” is by now the principal medium through which people of all experience levels communicate about wine, and like any medium it dictates a message independent of its content. Specifically, the need to communicate about wine in tasting notes results in a revision of aesthetic standards to favor those characteristics easiest to express in tasting notes. “[W]ith our nose to larboard,” writes Lambert-Gócz, “we chase the fleeting nuances in our frantic effort to determine the relative complexity of the wines coming before us. As if all aromatic sensations could be named, and none would overlap, we attempt what in effect amounts to a headcount of sensations which we are ready to accept as the definitive indicator of quality: Complex, rich flavor with suggestions of plums, cherries, capers, violets, mint, raspberries, green pepper, almonds, cedar, and an undertone of chocolate.” And as a result of writing in such “tortured prose likening wine to 57 different fruits (the Heinz Variety Tasting method),” as Joe Dressner puts it, “we try to pigeonhole a wine into the confines of these external evaluators. We do not taste and drink the wine for what it is, but for what it approximates in wine tasting lexicon.”

Interestingly, one comestible which the Heinz Variety Tasting method is especially useless to describe is Heinz ketchup itself, which only distantly tastes like its primary ingredient (tomatoes) and has no other individually discernible constituent flavors. This was the subject of a long Malcolm Gladwell piece attempting to resolve the conundrum of why nobody’s been able to improve on Heinz. The article is premised on the fact that while ketchup may seem pedestrian, it is actually a very sophisticated concoction—“alone among the condiments on the table, ketchup could deliver sweet and sour and salty and bitter and umami, all at once.” But just as importantly is the way in which it delivers these things. Heinz ketchup is strong in “amplitude,” “the word sensory experts use to describe flavors that are well blended and balanced, that ‘bloom’ in the mouth”:

When something is high in amplitude, all its constituent elements converge into a single gestalt. You can’t isolate the elements of an iconic, high-amplitude flavor like Coca-Cola or Pepsi. But you can with one of those private-label colas that you get in the supermarket. “The thing about Coke and Pepsi is that they are absolutely gorgeous,” Judy Heylmun, a vice-president of Sensory Spectrum, Inc., in Chatham, New Jersey, says. “They have beautiful notes—all flavors are in balance. It’s very hard to do that well. Usually, when you taste a store cola it’s”—and here she made a series of pik! pik! pik! sounds—“all the notes are kind of spiky, and usually the citrus is the first thing to spike out. And then the cinnamon. Citrus and brown spice notes are top notes and very volatile, as opposed to vanilla, which is very dark and deep. A really cheap store brand will have a big, fat cinnamon note sitting on top of everything.” . . . Generic colas and ketchups have . . . a hook—a sensory attribute that you can single out, and ultimately tire of.

It’s that multiplicity of hooks that is often mistaken for complexity. But, as Lambert-Gócz concludes, “The great paradox of worthy complexity is that it reaches its apogee when the aromas comprising it have pulled together, e pluribus unum fashion.” The veneer of such a composition may appear simple. If there is an underlying complexity, it lies in the precarious balance necessary to render that veneer flawlessly, and the aesthetic vision to make it beautiful. If you are merely counting the multiplicity of nuances, imbalances can be drowned out by the cacophony. If instead you are striving for one sustained note of unadulterated purity and exquisite beauty, it is essential to have the courage to silence the cacophony, even if the result is, for better or worse, beyond description.

For me, you’ve first got to have purity and precision before complexity becomes a factor in any positive way, perhaps in any way at all as I’m not really sure that you can have complexity without a certain degree of precision and purity. And there are many, many wines that can’t pass the P&P hurdle, even though they may be drinkable. And even once you get over the P&P hurdle, I may still value increased P&P more than increased complexity – it all depends on the individual wine, I suppose.

Oh, and I forgot that freshness is another factor that you’ve got to have (fortunately, by self selection, I don’t taste that many wines that lack freshness, but I know that there are many out there).

With few exceptions I rarely experience the “good” kinds of complexity with young wines. Its only with aged wines do I started seeing pleasing complexity.

For me, complexity is a distinct positive. A complex wine is one that has multiple and evolving tastes and smells that play well together and create a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. The gustatory equivalent of listening to a great symphony orchestra. A wine that surprises and challenges the senses with unexpected yet pleasurable and harmonious sensations on the nose and palate. In my experience, the best examples have almost always been with older wines. If the wine is also beautifully balanced, the combination can elevate the entire experience to something really special. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s one of the reasons I cellar wine.

I understand the concept of clashing or dissonant complexities, but I just haven’t thought of it that way. I guess my use of the term lacks, umm, complexity?

I can only give an analogy.

It is like standing on the top of Mauna Kea on the Big Island of Hawaii at night. Looking up. You see EVERYTHING in the sky clearly. Even the satellites orbiting are in full view. The whole of the picture that you take in with your eyes dazzles you with almost infinite possibilities. Everything is clear and focused on your retina. That is complexity. You just have to change the sense from sight to the very complicated taste/aroma sensation.

BTW, if you haven’t done a summit trip on Mauna Kea, you are missing a bucket list item.

To me it’s a lot of good stuff happening and the order to which it happens., resulting in a ‘wow’.
Maybe it can’t be easily quantified, only experienced.

Thanks for all the interesting thoughts.

I thought at first maybe you had nailed something important here, but then I read Claude’s comment, and Keith’s quote from the chef who removes ingredients, and it made me think that, for me, complexity isn’t an end in itself and that other qualities are actually more necessary before I consider a wine great.

The funny thing is, I think a lot of Cotes du Rhones and Rieslings have a lot of complexity. If they’re not great, it must be for some other reason – lack of depth, focus, structure, or whatever.

I think I’m with you. Now all we have to do is define purity and precision. :slight_smile:

Keith - that’s a great article.


It is also, BTW, a great comment on tasting notes and why I think it’s somewhat odd that people scramble to write them so often. Picking out flavor components shouldn’t really be the point of enjoying wine, coffee, tea or soup.

I don’t think complexity has much to do with the age of a wine either - often as not that’s just personal preference. Older wines do change of course, but young wines can be wonderfully complex too.

Keith – A fascinating discourse, which I’m still digesting [sic].

The observation about tasting notes (and who is responsible for writing with all those adjectives?) is very astute. When the British writers dominated wine criticism we didn’t get those kinds of descriptors.

When I think of complexity I think of variety - we have all had the expereince when a wine seems to flash different aspects or nuances of aroma/flavor over time in the glass, yet still retains the ability to knit all those disparate components into one harmonious whole. That kind of expereince seems to happen most often with wines that have sufficent age on them and for me are the times when both the intellectual and physical pleasure of drinking wine combine to hit a peak.

I look for complexity, but I think I should be thinking of it more in terms of profundity or uniqueness. This is my fifth year of being truly appreaciative of wine and I feel like I’m finally able, paraphrasing Terry Thiese here “hear what the wines are telling me”. Complexity seems to be a big part of that. I write too many notes, it is part of the journey for me. I notice that I fall into the trap of writing things which are generally not useful. As Keith points out, “complexity” as a general term can mean little or be wrapped in ambiguity. I also agree with Rick that while it isn’t the only thing, it is an important thing.

Does anyone remember that reference in an earlier thread to the human capacity to identify only a couple of flavors/smells at once?

So, which of these two paintings is more “complex”? And which is the greater work of art?

I will disagree with your premise on one count- the Sierra Crap-che was not at all complex.

Keith - great example, but while the absurdity of the latter makes your point about complexity, the greatness of the former I’m sure could be subject to considerable debate.

I liked your article, especially in the way it speaks to the “grocery list” style tasting note, which has really been taken to absurd levels by some professionals (and imitated by amateurs). I think to call a wine great, its flavors must be balanced and integrated in such a way that make it difficult or impossible to break into constituent parts, and as your article points out in a great analogy to cola, without some obvious strong flavor sticking out somewhere. I have no problem calling this “complexity” and saying it’s a requirement for a fine wine. Of course it’s not the only requirement; as Rick says, necessary but not sufficient.

Having sampled four bottles at one sitting at Dan Posner’s great taste-off, I beg to differ. In varying quantities depending on the bottle, it was a rich blend of port, prunes, raisins, VA, oxidation and alcohol with other flavor elements I don’t now recall. It was anything but monolithic! On a par with the aromatic mix of the NYC subway in August.

Are we talking about complexity or spoofilation? The first piece, fwiw, is not to my personal taste, but I can appreciate that it is a fine representative of its varietal. 86 points.

I liked your article, especially in the way it speaks to the “grocery list” style tasting note, which has really been taken to absurd levels by some professionals (and imitated by amateurs). I think to call a wine great, its flavors must be balanced and integrated in such a way that make it difficult or impossible to break into constituent parts, and as your article points out in a great analogy to cola, without some obvious strong flavor sticking out somewhere. I have no problem calling this “complexity” and saying it’s a requirement for a fine wine. Of course it’s not the only requirement; as Rick says, necessary but not sufficient.

If that’s what people mean by “complexity” I’m fine with it, but I don’t think that’s what most people mean and I think there are better words to describe that sensation - “harmonious,” “integrated,” and “amalgamated” all do the job nicely.